20 November 2011

Standoff [Luang Prabang, Laos]

The trip from Chiang Rai to the Laos border was quick and easy. Crossing the border, including a two minute ride across the Mekong river, was one of the most painless border crossings I have ever made, fun even. But getting from the small border town of Huay Xai to Luang Prabang was anything but quick and painless.

We arrived in Huay Xai mid morning, and rather than pay a huge commission to one of the travel agents near the border, we made our own way to the bus station to purchase an onward ticket. The bus station was localed 8kms out of the city, almost in the middle of nowhere. It was a small, muddy patch. In the centre a rundown, old building attached to a big tin shelter. VERY basic. It was before noon so we had to option of two buses leaving that day. A local bus at 2pm, and a VIP bus leaving at 5pm. Both did not seem like inviting options, the local bus arriving at around 2am, and the VIP at around 4am. (You would think a morning bus arriving in the evening, and an late evening bus arriving the following morning would be better options? Welcome to Laos). We decided on the local bus as it meant not waiting around for 3 more hours, and saved ourselves a few bucks.

Northern Laos is stunning. Maybe it was the full moon that had risen bright and high by mid-afternoon, or the perfect blue skies. But driving through the mountains was some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen. With small, golden rice paddies in the valleys between steep karst mountains. Deep green forests, streams and lakes. I think stunning is a perfect description.

The bus trip itself was pretty horrific. The bus kept stopping for 10, 15, sometimes 20 minutes for what seemed like no reason at all. And Laotians seem immune to the cold, with the doors and windows wide open, us in the back of the bus freezing our asses off. The road... well, it was a road in places, a pot-hole ridden dirt track in others, was not in a state of good repair. The bus was about as basic as it gets, meaning the comfort level was very low. Sleep did not come easy. We finally arrived in Luang Prabang at around 4am; cold, tired and grumpy.

There were four other foreigners on the bus, so we thought that we could get a share taxi/tuk-tuk into town. There were a couple of tuk-tuk drivers around, so we asked one how much to get to the center. Apparently it was 7kms away, and they demanded 20,000kip each (about US$3), which is way too much. We countered with 10 each, which is still too much but we were willing to take that hit; it was 4am. But they would not budge. So we just refused and sat down on the seats in the waiting area. There was a bit of a standoff, both parties refusing to budge. But really we both needed each-other. Us tourists didn't want to sit around in the cold for a few hours until more tuk-tuks showed up, but they didn't want to have spent the night out in the cold waiting for the bus to come and then not actually make any money. At one point they all fired up their tuk-tuks and it looked as though they were heading for the exit. I guess in hope that we would run over and tell them to stop and agree to pay 20. But no one budged and they just drove the tuk-tuks about 20m and parked again.

About 30 minutes went by before one more reasonable guy came over and asked for 15. I told him we wouldn't budge on 10, and he reluctantly agreed. We threw our gear on and we were finally on our way. The journey was nowhere near 7kms, probably closer to 3, but by this stage we just wanted to get into a warm bed.

We were actually really lucky, finding a guest house with someone awake within about 5 minutes. We dropped our gear and just crashed for about 5 hours.

Right, so Luang Prabang. A small city surrounded by two rivers and wild jungle. It is a really beautiful, relaxed spot. We spent a lot of time just wandering around, drinking fruit shakes, admiring the views along the river. buying tourist crap from the awesome night market. and drinking beer while watching the sun set over the hills.

Like every other city we have visited in SE Asia, Luang Prabang is full of temples. But the difference here is they charge you to get in to a lot of them. It is not a lot of money, but if you want to see a few it adds up. We decided to flag most of them, after seeing the White Temple (which was free!), normal temples just doesn't measure up any more.

Across the river from the main city is a more primitive style of life. Basic, small villages with dirt roads, people going about their daily lives. It was actually my favourite part of the city; wandering around the small trails in amongst the locals. There are several temples, but again, they all charge you to go in. We did check out one though, mainly because the ticket included a visit to a cave. The cave was pitch black, and the small torches provided were really not up to the task. Inside the stairs seem to keep going down into the depths forever. In several places there are parts of old broken Buddha statues. It is all pretty creepy really.

We also climbed the Phu Si hill, which provided really nice views out over the river. We did not explore the very top; surprise surprise, they wanted to charge you to go up, but it was nice enough from half way.

There are a couple of nice attractions out of the city, including some beautiful waterfalls and caves. As usual, to go with a group is crazy expensive, so we planned to hire a scooter and do it ourselves (as we have many times before). Problem, in Laos it is extremely expensive to hire a scooter. I'm talking around US$20/day. The most I have paid until now was $6 and I thought that was a rip-off. It would have actually been cheaper to go on the tour that it would be to hire the bike, so needless to say, we didn't do either. I'm sure there are plenty of other caves and waterfalls in this country.

Final thought; we though Laos was going to be cheap, but it turns out it is more expensive than Thailand! Making it the most expensive country we have visited in SE Asia. Accommodation is US$7+, a basic main is about $4, and transport cost us about $15 for a 5 hour trip. Yeah, it doesn't sound like much, but when you are used to paying about 1/3rd that, it is hard to adjust.

From here we move on to Vang Vieng. Tubing; it's on!

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